Readers’ Advisory

Cyber-Services for Adult Recreational Readers 

Technology has revolutionized the business of reference services in public libraries. With patrons able to find information themselves using the internet resources and databases provided by the library, much of what the librarian is asked to do is to recommend good books for recreational reading. This paper seeks to explore the ways that readers’ advisory has changed to accommodate patrons in the public library. According to a National Endowment for the Arts report, reading has risen among adults, and with this resurgence of interest in literary pursuits comes a renaissance in readers’ advisory services. Librarians are now providing book lists, leading book group discussions, and realizing the importance of enhanced tools which help link readers with books.

Readers and Reading

Hovering somewhere between guilty pleasure and valued freedom, reading is simply integral to the lives of many men and women. Kenneth Shearer (2001) claims that readers justify the time they spend on reading by citing the value of literacy in terms of vocabulary enhancement, knowledge of the world, and the ability to obtain a good job (p. 78). But any avid reader will enthusiastically describe a book in terms of how it helped shape their identity or made a difference in their life. Reading creates an emotional response that goes back in antiquity to the pleasure that indigenous people got from story-telling.

Studies conducted on reading and readers have been done by Catherine Ross (2001a), whose interviews with 194 enthusiastic readers showed that a broad familiarity with books gives readers an intuitive feel for what will please them. Choosing what to read is often done on the basis of “feel” or “mood.” One interviewee describes her process: “‘I start the first page and then I know. I can tell the author’s style and the kind of book by the first page’” (p. 10). Jessica Moyer (2008) credits Ross’ research with validating the idea of serendipitous discovery as a result of pleasure reading (p. 15). Other research done by Usherwood and Toyne and synopsized by Moyer (2008) finds that readers read for escapism, relaxation, and insight or knowledge (p. 14). Duncan Smith’s ten years of research on a single reader found that reading was a critical part of her life, from which “she derive[d] a great deal of meaning” (Moyer, 2008, p. 14). What all the research agrees on is that readers create and discover their own identity through reading, thus making it very important to their personal development.

Reading competes with other options for people’s free time and for many years it seemed as if reading was losing ground to television and internet surfing. But the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has released a report, Reading on the Rise, which reveals that for the first time since they started their surveys of American reading habits in 1982 there has been an upward trend in literary reading among adults (“Reading on the Rise”, 2009).

Perhaps the importance of books to patrons is best expressed by a resident protesting proposed cuts by the Boston Public Library Board: “Not the computers, not the high-tech, not the downloadables,” said Boston resident Maria Rodriguez at a March 9 Boston Public Library board meeting. “Libraries are about books and librarians. I didn’t hear anything about that in your vision” (Flagg, 2010).

The way a patron chooses which book to read has been explored by Duncan Smith (2009) and Catherine Ross (2001b) who found that readers use a combination of known authors and browsing the stacks. In analyzing Ross’s research, Moyer states: “Mood is key to many readers and is the initial influence in the reading selection process” (Moyer, 2008, p. 21). Other factors involved in choosing a book are experience, reviews, and recommendations. In her Booklist Column, Joyce Saricks (2010) claims that “readers’ advisory is one of the toughest jobs in libraries” because the patron’s mood determines what will satisfy him today, which is different from yesterday and tomorrow.

Readers’ advisory has typically ignored the reasons a reader reads, but David Beard and KateVo Thi-Beard (2008) maintain that if librarians remember that reading is integral to identity, they will reexamine their approach to readers’ advisory. Ironically, focus on the reader versus focus on the book- seemingly divergent approaches- have one thing in common: both readers and books have souls. Smith (2009) cites Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind (a book that changes the protagonist’s life): “books have souls-the soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it [. . .]” (p. 38).

Librarians and Reading

            In a speech given before the New York Library Association in 1907, Arthur Bostwick also makes the astonishing announcement that “the book has its soul” (p. 51). Bostwick explores the question of whether librarianship requires a love of books. His definition of a love of books reveals a basic understanding that librarians have about readers: they love the “universal mind of humanity as enshrined in print” (Bostwick, 1907, p. 52). Librarians understand that readers are not escaping from life, but from a “narrow, limiting view of the world” (Smith, 2009, p. 42). This simple fact explains why readers’ advisory is so important. The librarian has an opportunity (perhaps short and limited) to “convey in some indefinable way the fact that here is a body of workers, personally interested in books and eager to arouse or foster such an interest in others” (Bostwick, 1907, p. 55).

Moving forward a hundred years, research by Dilevko and Gottlieb found that “[m]ost librarians who read regularly and from a variety of sources feel not only that they are more successful in their jobs but that without reading they would be unable to do their jobs well” (Moyer, 2008, p. 22).  After considering the distressing decline in reading ushered in by the information age and data suggested by the NEA that “frequency of reading for pleasure correlates strongly with academic achievement” (Smith & Young, 2008, p. 520), libraries initiated many reading programs. Evidence exists to support the claim that “the ability to participate fully in societal decisions [. . .] may be contingent on being able to stay with and focus on ideas in a way fostered by reading, and more specifically by avid reading, reading for pleasure: (Smith & Young, 2008, p. 521).

Librarians are committed to Readers’ Advisory Services, even though Library and Information Science programs have neglected this aspect of Reference Services as a separate subject. Many librarians depend on their own wide range of reading as a valuable resource. As interest in Readers’ Advisory has flourished, user studies have been done on readers. Moyer’s (2005) definitive literature review concludes by suggesting that more studies need to be done on the use of new electronic resources and how they affect readers’ fiction selections.

Reading Lists and Library Websites

Reading lists have been around for centuries, beginning with the canon for intellectual improvement. People want lists for many reasons: to formulate a reading plan; to show what others are reading; to facilitate discussions; and to address specific subjects, genres, or age groups (reading levels). A list has its uses but much of readers’ advisory depends on identifying the appeal of a book and recommending readalikes.

Moyer (2008) discusses the research done by Yu and O’Brien in 1997 as proof that “readers both want and need additional information beyond that traditionally provided in an OPAC record” (p. 208). These additional cues include book covers, reviews, and more descriptive subject headings, which are not given enough attention. Steve Gordon created the website  because  he realized “‘that fiction, unlike non-fiction, was very difficult to classify’ and ‘that people didn’t just like books, they liked certain plots in books, certain kinds of characters in books, certain kinds and amounts of action and dialogue in books’” (Cassell & Hiremath, 2009, p. 303).

Many libraries have set up portals on their websites to assist patrons in selecting books to read.  Ross (2001a) makes a point about recommendations: “Recommendations are important, but only from a trusted source with tastes known to be compatible, such as certain reviewers, family members and ‘friends that know my taste,’ selected bookstore staff and librarians, and more recently Internet acquaintances” (p. 12).

Sharing books and reading suggestions is the main basis for the existence of book groups. Sherri Kendrick (2001) believes that a continuation of her reader’s advisory role is to facilitate book groups where patrons can bond with other readers. She claims that the “act of sharing and discussing books creates a friendship” (p. 88). A striking example of this is Alberto Manguel’s (1996) description of the closeness he feels to a woman on the subway, sitting across from him, reading one of his favorite books: “She, whose face I have forgotten, whose clothes I barely noticed, young or old I can’t say, is closer to me, by the mere act of holding that particular book in her hands, than many others I see daily” (p. 214).

Another library which has made its mark on the virtual world is the Montgomery County Public Library with its Readers’ Café  where you can find lists for readalikes by author or genre. There is also an online book club and book discussion guides for group use.

Ross (2001a) reports that “[r]eaders overwhelmingly reported that they choose books according to their mood and what else is going on in their lives” (p.13). One website that addresses this selection mechanism is  where the reader can use a slider to choose gradations from a dozen choices: happy to sad; funny to serious; safe to disturbing; expected to unpredictable; larger than life to down to earth and more. The suggestions are surprisingly interesting and include reader comments, extracts, and parallels. Though this site is designed for use in the United Kingdom and links to libraries in that country, the way it works is unique and after choosing from the suggestions, a site visitor can find the book on his own.

Another library website which has shown outstanding features is maintained by the Morton Grove Public Library System.  In analyzing some of these library sites, it is easy to see why some work and others don’t. Mary Chelton (2001) describes the criteria for a good readers’ advisory home page: “Keep in mind that the Web site developed is a window into the individual library, but because of the universal aspect of the Internet, it will also enhance the ability of readers worldwide to have better access to information about the books and authors they enjoy” (p. 143).

Book lists seem to be ubiquitous but somewhat inadequate unless they are accompanied by annotations and reviews. Marjorie Lewis (2001) warns librarians and readers to “know who is compiling the list” and suggests that any list for patron use include annotations (p. 204). Readers’ advisors must become adept at writing annotations, and Saricks (2009) suggests that librarians think about the essence of the book by focusing on the book’s appeal. But classification, genrefication, and appeal factors may be the most difficult part of readers’ advisory.

Classification, Genrefication, and Tagging

Classification of fiction has been problematic and the introduction of genrefication helped patrons by offering smaller, more focused collections. It is common for libraries to have mysteries, science fiction, and sometimes westerns in separate collections. But this arrangement has its own drawbacks, specifically for books that cross genres, or authors who write in more than one genre. Belcastro (1995) describes her library’s early deliberate efforts to create headings in natural language but Moyer’s (2005) review of the literature finds that classification of fiction has received little attention since 1995. While genrefication has increased circulation in most libraries, the most recent advances in folksonomy, or “tagging,” have created “democratic indexing schemes” where users contribute index terms that make sense to them (Moyer, 2005, p. 222). Barry Trott (2008) sees the future in these terms: “Although there has been discussion over the years of developing a controlled vocabulary of appeal, in the days of user tagging it may be more reasonable to look at how best to incorporate reader-developed concepts of what a book is into our discussion of appeal” (p. 134). Neal Wyatt (2009), member of the RA Big Think, agrees that searching by appeal is a problem that needs to be addressed by database producers. He also considers a list “fairly useless” unless it explains why a match is made (p. 43). Wyatt (2006) is the designer of “reading maps” which link pictures, music, and additional material to a book. These “visual journeys” allow readers to “inhabit the text and its outward connections, [. . .] enabling readers to follow threads of interest that stem from any particular part of the work” (p. 38).  These new ideas put readers’ advisory in place as a community effort and there is truth in Manguel’s (1996) statement that “[t]he categories that a reader brings to a reading, and the categories in which that reading itself is placed-the learned social and political categories, and the physical categories into which a library is divided-constantly modify one another in ways that appear, over the years, more or less arbitrary or more or less imaginative” (p. 197-198). Social networking sites are the latest step in reader participation in the user community. Saricks (2001a) defines the nature of the readers’ advisory interview as “a conversation about books” (p. 172).

Smith (2001), whose research findings resulted in the invention of NoveList, the database that many libraries use for readers’ advisory, credits Shearer’s work with North Carolina students: “Readers apparently want an opportunity to share their personal reading experiences. This sharing seems to indicate that readers may value the conversations they have with staff as much as the reading suggestions themselves” (p. 61). Perhaps this is what makes blogs and wikis particularly attractive to readers. It gives them the chance to connect with other readers, to describe (tag) books using their own lingo, and to organize their own reading lists. Katie Stover (2009) praises GoodReads, LibraryThing and Shelfari as the “best in show” of social networking sites (p. 244). The best feature of these sites is their tag clouds. The Madison Public Library has an extensive booklist on their MADreads site.

At the heart of the readers’ advisory services is the interview, which helps the librarian pair books with readers. Leisure reading has had its ups and downs and has been devalued as compared to “‘serious’ scholarship” (Smith & Young, 2008, p. 522). But the public library’s philosophy has always been that “reading has intrinsic value” whether for information or pleasure (Saricks, 2005, p. 1) and “[c]ommon knowledge among librarians is that fiction accounts for at least half of all adult book circulation” (Saricks, 2001b, p. 115).  The skills needed to master Readers’ Advisory demand a committed effort to a) be read widely, b) know your patrons, c) be familiar with popular titles, authors, and genres, d) master the interview, and e) learn to talk about books. Unfortunately, there has been a dearth of educational programs for readers’ advisors. In addition, there was an assumption (supported by the 1939 ALA Bill of Rights) that many patrons would object to questions about their reading habits as an invasion of privacy.  But Bill Katz (2001) describes readers’ advisory as “the very soul of the library” (p. 199), Neil Hollands and Moyer (2008) make the case that “advisory is the most fundamental of library services” (p. 251) and Kendrick (2001) concurs by saying:

It seems strange that librarians don’t do more readers’ advisory. To me, it seems like a basic principle of librarianship. Libraries were built to hold books and people continue to read and are always in search of a new book, a new author. Who better than librarians who thought enough about a book to purchase it, to recommend it. We spend so much time and money on acquisitions, we should be able to recommend our purchases to the patrons. We purchase a particular selection because we believe that someone in our area will want to read it, so it seems natural to link a book with a patron. (p. 85)

The Future of Readers’ Advisory in the Public Library

Readers’ advisory has evolved since the early 1920s and the establishment of the ALA Readers’ Advisory Committee in 1994. Libraries can now make recommendations online and patrons may like this better for its anonymity. Hollands (2006) recommends using a form to glean reading preferences addressing current mood as well as “peeves and pleasures”. Beard and Thi-Beard (2008) believe that readers’ advisors should take into account why a reader reads as well as where a reader reads.  Thomas á Kempis said it eloquently in the early fifteenth century: “Whether we first choose the book and then an appropriate corner, or first find the corner and then decide what book will suit the corner’s mood, there is no doubt that the act of reading in time requires a corresponding act of reading in place and the relationship between the two acts in inextricable” (Manguel, 1996, p. 151).

In conclusion, reading is alive and well. Smith has called reading a “creative act” (Moyer, 2008, p. 14), and Manguel (1996) credits Petrarch in more lyrical terms for suggesting a “new manner of reading: neither using the book as a prop for thought, not trusting it as one would trust the authority of a sage, but taking from it an idea, a phrase, an image, linking it to another culled from a distant text preserved in memory, tying the whole together with reflections of one’s own-producing in fact, a new text authored by the reader” (p. 63). Undoubtedly, readers will continue to pursue the next book and will want to talk about it eagerly. Good readers’ advisors will be the librarians who will listen and respond with their own enthusiasm for reading and books.  The fact that Public Libraries devoted their entire January/February, 2010 issue to Readers’ Advisory attests to its prominence in library services today. An independent research group found in the fall of 2008 that readers’ advisory services “ranked as one of the top four services offered by public libraries” (Hughes, p. 9)

Saricks (2005) recommends that both print and electronic resources should be available for patrons to browse and calls for librarians to “become familiar with their content and learn to integrate these tools” (p. 15). Readers’ advisory calls for librarians to identify the appeal of a book by asking the question, “Why did you like this book?” Since reading is like breathing to many people, the art of readers’ advisory is an essential service and should be taught within educational programs for librarians. Giving value to leisure reading and  value to readers’ advisory depends on understanding the basic reason that people read: “to glimpse what and where we are” (Manguel, 1996, p. 7).


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